This is the premier installment of my new weekly series on leadership and success. It features a cardinal rule for anyone aspiring to leadership – avoid abuse of power at all costs.
This installment focuses on the actions of past President Harry S. Truman, who, as Vice President, succeeded to the presidency following the death of President Franklin D. Roosevelt on April 12, 1945. Truman issued executive orders in 1945 restricting potential information available to a congressional committee investigating the Pearl Harbor attack. These actions, rarely if ever seen before or since by a sitting president, reflected a total disregard for the separation of powers doctrine embedded in our Constitution. This committee had been authorized by a joint congressional resolution to undertake an investigation of the December 7, 1941 attack by Japanese air and naval forces on the United States Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. Truman’s unconstitutional actions left Americans still searching for the complete truth as to responsibility for the Pearl Harbor attack.
The deep shock of the unexpected attack stunned the country and spawned an intense nationwide controversy. Swept by anger and outrage, the country demanded an answer to the overriding question: why had a great country like the United States been so totally blindsided by the Japanese? In response, on September 11, 1945, by concurrent resolution, Congress authorized a Joint Committee to investigate the attack and the events and circumstances relating thereto. The ten-member Joint Committee, five Senators and five Representatives, released its report to the public on July 20, 1946. In an apparent effort to preserve nonpartisanship, six Democrats, (the maximum authorized by the concurrent resolution), and four Republicans comprised the committee’s political makeup.
The totality of the Joint Committee Report, reached by an 8-2 vote, cannot be completely appreciated without considering the views of the two dissenters, Senator Homer Ferguson, (R-MI) and Senator Owen Brewster, (R-ME) Their views, although contained in the original Report, were largely downplayed by the print media when the Report was released. It essentially absolved President Franklin D. Roosevelt and other high ranking Washington officials and military and naval commanders in the field of responsibility for the attack. But the two dissenting members, in a fully documented 87-page opinion, thoroughly denounced the Report, including its partisanship.
The dissenters reached 21 conclusions of fact and responsibility respecting the evidence before the Joint Committee. The extensive factual support for their views, based entirely on evidence adduced by the Joint Committee, minimizes any argument that they were merely the product of a partisan attack. Their final conclusion, that President Roosevelt and other high ranking Washington officials and military commanders knew, or in the exercise of due diligence, should have known, that Pearl Harbor would be attacked and failed to perform those responsibilities indispensably essential to its defense, deserves serious consideration.
The two dissenting members targeted several aspects of the final report for strong criticism. They reserved their undoubtedly most scathing attack on the Report for the restrictions imposed by President Truman’s executive orders on potential investigative information otherwise available to the Joint Committee.
Here is the chronology. On August 28, 1945, President Truman issued an executive order severely limiting the Joint Committee’s power to gain access to the full facts by denying release to the public, except with specific approval of the President in each case, of information relating to status, technique, procedures, results, or degree of success of any “crytptanalytic (sic)” unit of the Government. A second order followed on October 23, 1945. Although the President’s new order modifying the first order was less stringent, the Minority objected that this modification left much to be desired because it was limited to the State, War, and Navy Departments and relaxed the secrecy of records only so far as the Joint Committee was concerned while continuing to impose restrictions for individual members, even when accompanied by Committee counsel. This order also contained the unfortunate phrase, “any information in their possession material to the investigation” (emphasis in original), which provided a cloak for those reluctant to yield requested information. No subsequent modifying order wholly removed those restrictions.
A November 7, 1945, Truman order relaxed restraints on executives of the Government in order that they may speak freely to individual members of the Committee, but it also closed with the admonition, “This does not include any files or written material.”
The dissenters viewed these executive orders as tantamount to thrusting an “iron curtain” over the investigation. Truman’s successive efforts to soften the effect of the restrictions suggest that he had second thoughts about issuing them in the first place. In any event his efforts were not totally effective as the dissenters pointed out.
The following quotation emphasizes significant aspects of the dissenters’ criticism of Truman’s restrictions:
“It was not until October 23, 1945, that President Truman made the [original] order less stringent by a new order. The modification left much to be desired…By one way or another, control over papers, records, and other information remained in the hands of the majority [Democratic] party members…The relaxation of restraints was often publicized while the continuing qualifications were but little discussed. The effect was to restrict individual members of the committee in practice while the appearance of their freedom of operations was held out to the public.”
Truman’s actions stand out as most troublesome, amounting in effect to a presidential cover-up of potentially revealing facts about the attack. Truman of course had ample motivation to cover up information suggesting President Roosevelt may have had advance knowledge of the attack. It was Roosevelt who agreed to place Truman on the national ticket as vice-presidential candidate in 1944. Truman, thus, would not have become president but for Roosevelt.
The Minority had strong reasons to complain about President Truman’s restrictions, which effectively negated investigative completeness. They stand out as a clear abuse of executive power. The specter of a sitting President restricting a congressional investigation into an issue as vitally important to the American people as the Pearl Harbor attack is unparalleled. The restrictions Truman imposed on the investigation provide an apt leadership lesson, i.e., avoid abuse of power. His actions raise serious doubts as to whether the whole truth about Pearl Harbor will ever be known. His presidential reputation remains forever tainted.
This opening installment is based on my forthcoming book, “The Pearl Harbor Congressional Cover Up. A True Account of How A Democratic Congress Misled the American People on the Pearl Harbor Attack, December 7. 1941. Featuring Historic Lessons on the Failure of Leadership to Foresee the Attack, and to Avert War With Japan.”
Arnold G. Regardie